SPOTTING a Borsalino, a black wide-brimmed felt fedora, in the traditionally Jewish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is no strange thing. What was surprising was the wearer: Theophilus London, a hip-hop artist from Trinidad. “This one is from the Jewish store,” Mr. London said, motioning toward southern Williamsburg, where the haredi still outnumber the hipsters.
This is not the first time that the Borsalino has hopped cultures. “This is an item of clothing that the Jews didn’t design, and didn’t invent, but they took it on and have given it a cachet in their own world,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College and the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”
While the tradition of Jews wearing black headgear goes back ages (it was a sign of mourning for the loss of Jerusalem), it wasn’t until the 1960s that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, as well as Chabad-Lubavitch Jews, began wearing the black fedora to distinguish themselves.
“As the differences between left and right begin to crystallize — when the trauma of survival is behind the Orthodox Jews and they’re re-establishing themselves in North America and Israel — they’re looking for some way to ensure they’re not assimilated, that they don’t disappear,” Professor Heilman said. “It’s not just the black hat. It’s the black suit jacket, the black pants and the white shirt, black shoes and glasses with black frames.”